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Rod Serling’s ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ Opens on Broadway

March 8, 1985 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Harlan ″Mountain″ McClintock could have been heavyweight champion of the world.

In 1948, he was rated among the top five. Now it’s eight years later, and the 33-year-old Mountain has just gone seven rounds, taken nine stitches and lost what his manager says is a quart of blood in a brutal battle with a younger boxer. And his eyesight will go if he continues fighting, the doctor says.

That’s the situation setting up ″Requiem for a Heavyweight,″ Rod Serling’s extraordinary and powerful drama about a prizefighter’s discovery of self-worth that has finally arrived on Broadway after a journey of nearly 30 years. The play opened Thursday at the Martin Beck Theater, and there isn’t anything else like it on the New York stage.

For one thing, ″Requiem″ has a towering performance by John Lithgow, a man made to play Mountain. Physically imposing, Lithgow dominates this production, not only because of his size, but because of the enormous range he demonstrates in this play, from child-like glee to uncontrollable rage. It’s an emotionally and physically exhausting portrayal, and Lithgow doesn’t spare himself or the audience.

He’s especially moving in a scene at an employment office where he meets Grace Miller, a counselor who takes more than a professional interest in the fighter. Maria Tucci gives a restrained, affecting performance as Grace, and their scenes together are among the best in the play.

Thanks to director Arvin Brown, the huge production - 19 characters and 14 scenes - has a grace and fluidity that’s almost cinematic. Credit should also go to designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg whose grimy, gloomy sets, expertly lighted by Ron Wallace, evoke the sad, despairing world of small-time boxing.

Serling’s play, originally written in the 1950s, echoes the realistic dramas of that period. There’s a strong, melodramatic story line, perhaps almost too much for today’s audiences, accustomed to single-set, four- character plays.

Mountain faces his biggest battles outside the ring. One unknown opponent is his manager Maish Resnick who actually bet against Mountain in his last fight, believing the boxer wouldn’t last four rounds. He went seven.

It’s Maish who needs money to pay off Max, a sleazy promoter, and to do it he’ll force Mountain to take up wrestling, an occuption that Mountain and many of his boxing buddies sneer at as more show business than sport.

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As the gruff, tough-talking manager, George Segal has got the bluster down exactly right as well as the pain of selling out his fighter. Joyce Ebert offers a sharp portrait of a cynical hooker with the usual heart of gold, and David Proval manages to find a real person in the small but pivotal role of Mountain’s trainer Army.

Serling, who died in 1975, was best known as the host and creator of the television series ″Twilight Zone.″ ″Requiem″ was first performed in 1956 on ″Playhouse 90,″ that classy outlet for live television drama. Six years later, a film version, starring Anthony Quinn as Mountain and Jackie Gleason as Maish, appeared.

A script for the play, apparently written after the telecast, was found in the attic of Serling’s home by his widow, Carol. The manuscript was cut and polished with the help of producer Ken Butler and at a production Brown did at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., last year.

Whatever its origins, the play now at the Martin Beck is a worthy addition to a barren Broadway season. It makes one regret that Serling concentrated most of his talent on the small screen rather than the stage.